Anyone who has ever experienced my photographic journey to the good ol' days knows how the narrative begins with the first four black-and-white, 8X10 images in the black binder: "Sex. Drugs. Sex and drugs. And rock 'n' roll."
The first photo is of a long-haired brunette in her kitchen immediately following an afternoon tryst in her South Grant Street apartment. The second is a pot plant growing under a roommate's window sill. The third is a petite blonde in jeans and a sweater curled up on her bed with a joint. The fourth is a close-up of guitarist Al DiMeola, who's actually a jazzman and not a rock star.
To say the decade between say 1965 and 1975 was a blue-moon time for a young man to come of sexual age would be understatement in the extreme. It was the magical period between the invention of the birth-control pill and the onset of the incurable disease epidemic, a convergence of events that has never been experienced before or after, and never will again. The Daily Show's Jon Stewart once interviewed independent filmmaker John Carpenter about the subject. Carpenter said he lost his virginity the day they discovered the pill. Stewart said he lost his the day they discovered AIDS.
For more tales of Bloomington past
- Forty Years in Bloomington: A Memoir -- Index
For the first time in human history, '60s and '70s women were free to engage in worry-free sex. They weren't going to get pregnant. And while venereal disease still carried with it an enormous social stigma, it could be cured with a shot. I was in my mid-20s and in a relationship that would last 15 years and produce two generations of girls when a buddy told me that a mutual friend had "incurable syph." Even though herpes had been around since the ancient Greeks, we hadn't even heard the term.
The only real impediment to women's sexual freedom was reputation, and the lure of erotic potentialities soon rendered that concern quaint for the females of my generation. And Bloomington, with its 20,000 or so women in their late teens and early 20s, mostly from the self-indulgent class, was a Gomorrah of sexual exploration.
A town filled with smart, curious, sexually liberated women. What 22-year-old guy could ask for more?
My love life accelerated during my senior year in college, and the Summer of '73, a.k.a. "Naked Summer," typified the times. In many ways, the debauchery of those three months was inspired by Mattie, an accelerant I had come to know in the spring. A neighbor in our East University Street apartment complex introduced us. At 24, she was older, a scant 5-feet, with close-cropped black hair. The afternoon we met she wore an olive-green army jacket, jeans and black boots.
Mattie was cute but not really my type, and I wouldn't have paid her much attention were it not for her attitude. She really didn't care what people thought. She liked to do party drugs, and she liked to "get it on," as she put it. A close friend and roommate used to lament the fact that women didn't approach sex like men. Well, Mattie did. She had no interest in attachments, bonds or reputation. She just enjoyed it.
My first three months in Bloomington as a non-student were spent in a spacious, two-story house at 19th and Lincoln that four college buddies and I rented. Big Red, as we called the place for its deep sienna exterior paint, had plush carpeting throughout the upstairs, five bedrooms, two kitchens, a garage, a balcony and two full baths. It sat a lot-and-a-half back from 19th Street and was surrounded by trees. With a long driveway and expansive front yard for parking, it was the ultimate summer party house.
And we made the most of those attributes. Those of us who worked didn't do it much. Survival was cheap in the early '70s, especially when what expenses there were split five ways. Ayres was the only roomie with a full-time job. He worked in a ceramic bong factory called Earthworks a couple miles north of town on Walnut. Time was a commodity we had plenty of.
We spent our days shouting at the Watergate hearings on television and skinny-dipping in local water holes. The quarry featured in Breaking Away, which we knew as "Long Hole," was famous for breast strokes long before the movie. Our favorite aquatic escape, due to its close proximity and intimate, Shangri La feel was a quarry on 17th Street near the State Road 37 Bypass. Another was a man-made pond most called "Lost Lake" out by T.C. Steele's House of the Singing Winds in western Brown County. A friend dubbed it "Naked Village" after spending his first afternoon there.
We also drank beer, smoked pot, listened to music and had a never-ending stream of visitors. Big Red was one of those houses where, no matter what time it was, day or night, someone was asleep, and someone was awake. And time wasn't the only commodity we had plenty of in the Summer of '73. Mattie had great connections for party drugs, specifically Quaaludes, a powerful sedative with aphrodisiacal side effects. ("I've never just peeled my clothes off before!")
Mattie was also plugged into a hard-core party crowd, so there was never any shortage of people willing to drop some Ludes and take off their clothes. She had friends with nicknames like Curly Shirley and Fast Eddie. And our house became the site of frequent naked parties that summer, usually impromptu. Friends would drop by, only to be confronted by a houseful of naked strangers. Squeezing as many wet, naked bodies as possible in the upstairs shower became a tradition. Curly Shirley got stopped by the police walking home au naturel from one of our soirees. The cops just took her home.
Somehow, amid the debauchery, I managed to write a political science paper to finish an incomplete that summer and became a college graduate. But armed with a bachelor's degree with a double major in political science and psychology, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I had no interest in graduate school and saw no future in either of my fields of study without it.
Also, working your ass off while you're young so you can relax when you're old always seemed backwards to me. I was more interested in adventure. I had been taking photographs since junior year and had started developing my own film and prints in our apartment bathroom senior year. Big Red's upstairs kitchen did double duty as a late-night darkroom, and I had romantic visions of a photographer's life, a la National Geographic. But I didn't yet understand the artist's eye, and photojournalism was more fantasy than possibility.
So, after we left 19th Street, I put my few earthly goods in a storage unit and spent a few months couch surfing with friends who had apartments on South Henderson and mobile homes in the Cascades trailer park. Eventually, Ayres, Wild Bill and I moved to the country, renting a house on State Road 45 near Unionville. After we got busted in March 1974, I knew it was time for a change.
I continued developing my photographic skills out in the boonies and still dreamed of traveling with my camera. I had also grown fond of the independent life. So, when Ayres told me that a friend had turned him onto a hand-woven, South American wall hanging that had proven market potential, we hatched a plan. We decided to start an importing business.
We were going to Colombia.
Steven Higgs can be reached at .